The news came out last Thursday: 12 public library branches in Mecklenburg will be closed in 2 weeks and around 150 employees will lose their jobs. They are trying to raise $2 million in a week in a last ditch effort to avoid that. Since then everything about it has been discussed and argued about in all kinds of media, and there isnt much left to add to that debate. What I offer here is instead a very personal take on the issue.
I grew up in a family and a culture that valued books and reading. But books were hard to come by. Every major town had a public library. However the shelves were mostly empty, the books dusty, old and falling apart. The only good libraries were those attached to the bigger universities, accessible only to the students enrolled there which made them very exclusive. So when I moved to the U.S. around 11 years ago, I didnt even bother to check out the public library in the small Kansas town I had moved to. But when I did, I was really amazed by the facility and the collection. Since then whenever I meet someone who has newly arrived in the U.S., I advice them to first get a library card.
The public library system is one of the best-kept secrets of the United States. We who live here often forget that in such a large country, it is so unusual and extraordinary for every small town, and every neighborhood in a city, to have a well-stocked library. In a country that offers no free lunch, we take for granted one of the few facilities that we enjoy at very low expense. And in the changing world order, it is one of our true advantages that the new rising powers like Brazil, China, India or Russia will find hard to replicate.
Back to Charlotte: Of course things could have been handled better here, in one of the best library systems in the country. There should have been a longer notice than 2 weeks. There should have been a longer term plan, so that a brand new facility wouldnt have to be closed less than 2 months from its opening. But this is not the time to blame the system its the time to try do something. Let us just hope that the county and the library system realize that this kind of genuine concern, sympathy and goodwill from such a large section of the community is hard to come by. They would lose a huge opportunity if they dont turn this groundswell of support into a permanent citizen organization that would become a safety net if/when something like this happens again. After all, by all indications, this seems to be only the beginning.
For now, $2 million isnt a big amount for a city of Charlottes size and resources, even in the middle of a bad recession; $2 million will not pay for even the building of the smallest of branches that faces closure but the damage that the lack of $2 million will cause is incalculable.